Tag: Counseling & Consultation Services

Suicide ‘survivors,’ counselors discuss uncomfortable subject, stigma at powerful CLS event

Adam Carter

Adam Carter

For Adam Carter, the moment came some 15 years ago in the preschool classroom where he taught.

Three-year-old Malcolm would not – or perhaps could not – sleep during the nap time; instead, Carter remembers, the young boy asked to climb onto his teacher’s lap.

Carter would have rather taken those few moments to rest himself, or to sanitize the classroom and its toys, but he nodded and plopped into the rocking chair. Malcolm joined him.

“He said, ‘Did you know that my grandpa just died?’ ” says Carter, who did not know. “Malcolm, at 3 years old, said, ‘I have mixed feelings about that.’ ”

For Stephanie Weber, the moment came nearly 40 years ago. She had recently “retired” from teaching to become a stay-at-home mom to four children, the youngest of whom was only 11 months old.

Weber’s mother, who had tried to die by suicide two-and-a-half years before, succeeded in her second attempt. She was 61.

It stirred within Weber feelings of shock, grief and anger, and bestowed on her a new title.

“The initials by our names are ‘survivor,’ ” Weber says. “We have been down in the trenches where we never wanted to be.”

Laura Bartosik

Laura Bartosik

Laura Bartosik’s moment came only three years ago. Her son, Seth, “so likeable, so compassionate,” chose to take his life at the age of 20.

Bartosik and her husband, Brett, overwhelmed with shock, tears and guilt, struggled to understand. Their only child was gone.

Seth was always “a happy-go-lucky youngster” and “a social butterfly.” Teachers told the proud parents that Seth was “a joy to have in class” and “a chatty kid.” He loved to fish, skate, play hockey and ride his skateboard.

Two years after he graduated from DeKalb High School, he was ready to attend culinary school. The taste of his bread pudding with caramel sauce is one his mother cannot forget; her voice breaks in sorrow when she says that she’ll never get to taste it again.

“I never imagined that this lovable kid, this social butterfly, would take his own life,” Bartosik says. “You feel your heart just breaking.”

Carter, Weber and Bartosik – their lives all jarred and redirected by personal grief or the grief of others – were among five panelists Oct. 12 at the NIU College of Education’s Community Learning Series on “Suicide Prevention: Sharing Strategies of Care.”

Panelists also included Brooke Ruxton, who serves NIU students, and Vince Walsh-Rock, who works with students at Downers Grove South High School.

Suzanne Degges-White

Suzanne Degges-White

Organized by the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, the evening was dedicated to what Chair Suzanne Degges-White called “breaking the silence.”

It was a night of courage and questions, capped by a performance from Aurora’s Simply Destinee dance troupe, formed in honor of Destinee Oliva, who died by suicide in 2010 at the age of 16.

It was also a night with a challenge to “end the stigma” and to “ask the hard question” to those who might seem suicidal: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”

Mental health issues impact all ages and all people, something made vividly clear through the stories from the panelists. However, when it comes to suicide, many people are reluctant to confront it or to even speak its name aloud.

“We have to say the word,” Weber told the audience inside the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center. “Saying the word ‘suicide’ doesn’t cause someone to take their life.”

“Talking about death and talking about dying is hard. It’s hard all the time,” Carter added. “These are conversations that are hard to have, but they’re worth having.”

Ruxton, director of Counseling and Consulting Services at NIU, related the story of a former NIU student who earned excellent grades, was active in extracurricular organizations and held leadership positions on campus.

Despite her outward appearance, she worked hard to keep her inner suffering a well-guarded secret. She contemplated suicide every day. She cut herself to treat the sadness. When she chose to seek help from Ruxton, it took three or four therapy sessions for her to utter even one word; during those appointments, the young woman could only curl up into a ball and cry.

Brooke Ruxton

Brooke Ruxton

“I could see the pain, so I just sat with her,” Ruxton said. “I helped her to breathe.”

At the end of each appointment, Ruxton asked important questions: “Can you come back next week? Are you going to be safe until next week?”

The answers, fortunately, were always “yes.”

Eventually, as graduation arrived and their counseling relationship ended, the young woman gave Ruxton a note of thanks with a quote from Elizabeth David, a 20th century writer from the United Kingdom: “There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.”

“What meant most to her was feeling cared about,” Ruxton said.

Around 40 percent of students who visit the NIU Counseling and Consulting Services have considered suicide, she said. Around 13 percent of those have tried to kill themselves.

Young people today are “navigating this world that’s constantly sending them information” via social media, she said. When mental health issues arise, they might feel ashamed or embarrassed by what could seem to them signs of weakness.

“Not every person who is struggling is going to say, ‘I’m having a hard time, and I’m going to go see a counselor,’ ” Ruxton said.

Sadly, she added, the stigma of suicide prevents many from receiving the critical intervention they desperately need from friends, family and others in their lives.

“People don’t know where to start. They’re afraid to cross a line or open a can of worms,” she said.

However, she added, “you don’t have to fix it right there and then.”

Vince Walsh-Rock and Stephanie Weber

Vince Walsh-Rock and Stephanie Weber

Walsh-Rock remembers cases of suicidal thoughts among Downers Grove South students as “minimal” when he started there 20 years ago. Now, he said, the staff under his supervision bring two – or sometimes three or four – such reports each day.

Many teens feel a “pervasive isolation,” he said, a type of trauma that requires compassion and action. Their young minds can believe that “this is the worst thing that’s ever happened – and it’s happening to me.”

Consequently, he teaches “depression literacy” and uses “threat models” that clearly signal to caregivers and others when they need to access appropriate services.

He also empowers everyone from teachers and school administrators to custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and secretaries to “see something, say something.”

“If you work in isolation,” he said, “you’re going to make mistakes.”

NIU’s Carter, an assistant professor of trauma counseling in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, has concentrated his career on intervening in the lives of preschool children.

Despite their tender ages, and as impossible as it seems, he said, there are 4-year-olds with thoughts of hurting or killing themselves. It’s as easy as walking in front of moving cars or jumping out of windows, he said.

Carter prepares future counselors to understand the grief experiences of children ages 3 to 5 – “it looks different,” he said – to help parents and caregivers communicate with the little ones.

“It’s something we as adults tend to be very afraid of talking about,” he said. “We don’t want to have these conversations with them.”

Aurora’s Simply Destinee dance troupe performed at the end of the evening.

Should the unthinkable happen, Bartosik said, survivors can find ways to move on.

For the Bartosiks, the answers lay in honoring their son’s memory and by supporting, teaching and empowering his friends and other young people.

They first opened their home as a safe space for Seth’s friends to share grief and ask questions. “We thought, ‘We can all stumble through this together, or we can let the kids just suffer through this all alone,’ ” she said, “but that’s not who we are.”

Next, they launched a non-profit organization called Project Seth in the hopes that sharing their son’s story could potentially save the lives of others.

“This is how we got our hope. This is how we make it through every day without Seth,” she said. “He didn’t do anything wrong. Something was wrong – and that’s why he took his life.”

Weber, the executive director of Suicide Prevention Services of America, counseled the Bartosiks in their mourning.

Her love for suicide survivors is the foundation of all her work, which includes education and training, a suicide hotline, support groups, public speaking and, of naturally, counseling. “I am honored that they trust me with their pain,” she said, “and we move forward together.”

Of course, she acknowledged, not every answer will come.

“You have to keep asking yourself ‘Why?’ until you no longer have to keep asking. The person who has that answer can’t tell us,” she said. “We finally have to let that go and move on.”

Mark McGowan, NIU Newsroom



Community Learning Series will explore awareness, prevention of ‘taboo’ subject of suicide

cls-poster-newLegendary grunge rocker Chris Cornell committed suicide May 18 in his hotel room following a concert in Detroit.

Only two months later, on July 20, Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington took his own life at home in California. Bennington had performed at Cornell’s memorial service. The two had been friends. Between them, they left nine children, some as young as 6.

Members of the media – the music media, especially – scrambled for answers. Why? Why now? Were there signs? Could anyone have helped? In the end, their reporting took the shape of rise-and-fall stories that shed little light on what caused the tragedies of May 18 and July 20.

The all-too-real deaths of Cornell and Bennington exist alongside the pop-culture sphere of the fictional TV series, “13 Reasons Why,” which has renewed intense scrutiny, conversation and controversy throughout the nation for its stark depiction of teen suicide.

But conversation on uncomfortable topics is important, says Suzanne Degges-White, chair of the NIU Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education.

And conversation is the goal of “Suicide Prevention: Sharing Strategies of Care,” the latest installment in the College of Education’s Community Learning Series.

“Suicide is a topic a lot of people are afraid to address,” Degges-White says. “They’re afraid that if they talk about it, they might make someone commit suicide or want to commit suicide. They think that if they bring it up, they might be planting seeds of an idea – and that’s not true.”

Suzanne Degges-White

Suzanne Degges-White

Beyond those fears, she adds, “suicide is still a taboo subject. It’s something we don’t mention, and there’s a lot of shame and stigma for people who’ve lost someone to suicide. It’s a fear that they’ll be looked down upon.”

Five panelists will explore topics of suicide from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, in the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road. The event is free and open to the public; a reception will take place from 5:30 to 6 p.m.

Panelists include Adam Carter, an assistant professor of trauma counseling in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education; and Brooke Ruxton, director of Counseling and Consulting Services at NIU.

Others on the panel are Laura Bartosik, co-founder of Project SethStephanie Weber, executive director, Suicide Prevention Services of America; and Vince Walsh-Rock, assistant principal for Counseling and Student Support Services at Downers Grove South High School.

Degges-White will moderate the discussion, leading the panelists through questions that identify ways in which the average person can recognize the warning signs and feel prepared to speak up.

Her colleagues also will explore topics of self-injury and supportive services provided by schools.

Members of the audience who are mourning the suicides of friends and loved ones will hear valuable tips for working through their grief, Degges-White says. Counselors will attend the event, she adds, and will make themselves available for anyone in need that evening.

Adam Carter and Brooke Ruxton

Adam Carter and Brooke Ruxton

“If you’ve lost someone to suicide, this is a safe place – and a good opportunity to hear the stories of others,” Degges-White says. “Laura Bartosik lost her son to suicide, and she has turned her grief into positive action. She created Project Seth, a foundation where they promote suicide awareness.”

The Oct. 12 event fits well with a $300,000 grant received last fall from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to decrease stigma around mental health and to promote resilience in the NIU community.

NIU’s three-year grant, which is shared by the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education and Counseling and Consultation Services, funds various training programs and an awareness campaign.

“The connections that we’re making through the grant really indicated that this topic needs to be addressed in multiple areas and not just to our campus,” Degges-White says. “It’s important to talk about this topic. Suicide should never be perceived as an acceptable option to solve a problem.”

For more information, call (815) 753-1448 or email cahe@niu.edu.



How to save a life

NIU receives grant to prevent suicides through awareness

mental-health-chalkA $300,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will work to decrease stigma around mental health and promote resilience in the NIU community.

NIU’s three-year grant, awarded to collaborators from the NIU College of Education’s Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education (CAHE) and NIU Counseling & Consultation Services, will fund various training programs and an awareness campaign.

“Like every other campus across the country, we’re seeing more and more students presenting with mental health issues than we have in the past,” said Brooke Ruxton, executive director of Counseling & Consultation Services and a licensed clinical psychologist, “and we’re doing something about that.”

Called “B-Safer” – an acronym for “Building Suicide Awareness and Fostering Enhanced Resilience” – the initiative officially begins Sept. 30. The B-Safer team also includes Suzanne Degges-White and Carrie Kortegast, chair and assistant professor in CAHE respectively.

Workshops will include “gatekeeper” training for faculty and staff, who will learn how to identify at-risk students and how to respond when they do.

The B-Safer program also will offer awareness training for peer leaders from student organizations on how to recognize signs of trouble in their friends and classmates.

Suzanne Degges-White, Carrie Kortegast and Brooke Ruxton

Suzanne Degges-White, Carrie Kortegast and Brooke Ruxton

Both scenarios will take into consideration NIU’s diversity; some populations on campus are culturally resistant to seeking out help for mental health issues, Ruxton said.

Participants also will learn from Kognito, an online program that, according to its website, “simulates the interactions and behaviors of practicing health professionals, patients, caregivers, students and educators in real-life situations” through “conversation simulations featuring virtual humans to drive measurable change in physical, emotional and social health.”

Kortegast hopes her colleagues across campus will participate – and find empowerment.

“Faculty are some of the people who are seeing students on an ongoing, regular basis. Sometimes there is a reluctance on the part of faculty to inquire with students on how they’re doing,” Kortegast said. “We can do this in a way of a community of care rather than, ‘It’s not my business. It’s not my concern. There are others who will intervene.’ ”

Such awareness “builds a community of care in which faculty and staff feel it’s OK to reach out to students and resources on campus, that it’s OK to talk about issues of mental health,” Ruxton added. “We’re creating a culture that this is something we’re doing with student organizations, this is something we’re talking about, that we’re watching out for our friends.”

Degges-White, Kortegast and Ruxton already have assembled a Mental Health Task Force made up of NIU faculty and staff as well as a representative from the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board.

“A big piece is connecting with the community,” Degges-White said. “We need to have community buy-in.”